Did “Bessie” Accurately Reflect Bessie Smith’s Sexuality and Relationships?
The real Ma Rainey bestowed a lot of things on the real Bessie, from tactics for money management (both wore carpenter’s belst under their dresses to hold her cash) and how to manage a crowd. It is widely suggested that Rainey also had an influence on Bessie’s sexuality, as Rainey’s lyrics often contained suggestively lesbian language, and Bessie became an openly bisexual woman early in her career.
Biography.com furthers the explanation:
“Several of Ma Rainey’s songs contained references to lesbian affairs, and although she was married for decades to Will Rainey, it is generally accepted that Ma was as interested in women as she was in men…There isn’t much hard evidence to support the stories, but it has been strongly implied over the years that Ma Rainey introduced Bessie Smith to lesbian relationships. Although Bessie herself would get married in the early 1920s, she would conduct various affairs with dancers in her shows throughout her career (the most famous of these, with a woman named Lillian Simpson, resulted in several episodes of violence between Bessie and her jealous husband). She was also a frequent visitor to “buffet flats,” party houses (usually located in big cities) where all forms of sexual expression were permissible. Generally, Bessie would explore this other world when her marriage was at low ebb, which happened often enough. Whether Ma Rainey was directly responsible for Bessie’s interest in women is something we’ll probably never know, but the fact is that after her time in the tent shows, Bessie was more open to alternative lifestyles than before.”
Whether it was truly Rainey’s influence or not is fairly unimportant. Smith was a loud, outspoken, bisexual black woman during a time where any one of those characteristics could be cause for attack. What’s important is that she was fine with all of it, because it was her.
The AV Club says “The movie paints Smith as someone who could never quite be satiated. In Latifah’s hands, her desires serve as surrogates for quelling her early childhood trauma, but simultaneously fill her with joy, because they’re constant reminders that she is thrillingly, unashamedly alive.”
The film takes a very candid look at Smith’s various sexual relationships. Upon her introduction she’s making out with a strange man in an alley, then she’s in bed with her dancer, then she’s marrying Jack Gee (Michael K. Williams), back again with the dancer, and so on. Though the peaks and ebbs in her relationships are rarely investigated in full during the film, Bessie’s romantic scenes are some of its most unconventional and intriguing moments, and what we take away is that she teetered back and forth between hetero and homosexuality as it suited her.
“Smith’s open-secret bisexuality is explored in neutral tones, rather than treated as a narrative ploy.” - Billboard
Slate expands on the accuracy of the film’s portrayals of Smith’s relationships:
“Smith was bisexual in real life, as in the film. She had several affairs with women, but the movie’s female love interest, a character named Lucille, appears to be a composite of at least a couple people. She could be a mixture of Smith’s close friend and niece by marriage, Ruby Walker, and a woman named Lillian Simpson, with whom Smith had an intense affair. But the tenderness Smith consistently shows Lucille in the movie is not completely true to Smith’s relationship with Simpson, at whom she once shouted, “I got twelve women on this show and I can have one every night if I want it.”